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The Grand Rapids skyline at night includes the JW Marriott with its views of the Grand River.


Modern Art Michigan

By Tate Gunnerson



An internationally renowned art show shines the spotlight on a scenic riverfront city in the throes of a spectacular revival.

WITH A DIZZYING array of new microbreweries, hipster-friendly coffee roasters and innovative tech startups joining longtime companies like Steelcase, Grand Rapids has bucked the trend of other Rust Belt cities and successfully positioned itself as one of the hottest destinations in the Midwest. Further burnishing its cred is ArtPrize, an international art competition that returns from Sept. 20 to Oct. 8 for its ninth annual outing. Not restricted to the hallowed walls of art galleries or museums, ArtPrize’s nearly 200 venues include bars, restaurants, hotels and even the Grand River itself. It’s one of the world’s largest art events, and definitely the place to see how modern art is pushing the envelope of creativity.

The centrally located downtown district offers beautiful views of the Grand River and close proximity to many of the exhibitions, making it an ideal place to plant a flag during your stay. In addition to its spacious rooms and top-notch concierge service, the Amway Grand Plaza (room rates from $224 per night) houses several high-end restaurants and the excellent Lumber Baron Bar—a clubby mahogany-paneled space where there’s always a roaring blaze in the fireplace and a crew of skilled mixologists spinning out delicious craft cocktails. Before you imbibe, work out at the fantastic on-site fitness center, which is fully outfitted with top-of-the-line equipment, lighted outdoor tennis courts and a wet area with a refreshing swimming pool and hot tubs.

Also located along the water, the JW Marriott (room rates from $237 per night) offers luxurious rooms with several unique layouts. While there, check out —a gourmet farm-to-table restaurant named for the local area code. Also worth a visit is the posh on-site spa, which offers facials, massages and other indulgent services—just what the doctor ordered after a long day of exhibit-hopping.

The lobby of the Amway Grand Plaza retains its Old World opulence.

You can easily spend a couple of hours at the bright and airy Downtown Market, which is home to dozens of vendors, including a local outpost of the Detroit hot spot Slows Bar BQ. And don’t miss Field & Fire Bakery, a carb addict’s fantasy best known for its homemade buttery croissants. An official Art Prize location, the bright and airy mixed-use facility also offers rentable rooftop greenhouses and a state-of-the-art incubator kitchen.

Art enthusiasts and horticulturists alike will undoubtedly be gobsmacked by the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park for its serene walking paths, fantastic gardens (the Japanese garden is a must-see) and out-of-this-world sculpture collection, which is currently exhibiting the work of Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei.

A pink two-story house with women in ethereal white dresses swinging in the open windows is just one of the whimsical past exhibits by Site:Lab, a volunteer collective that uses vacant buildings (including commercial buildings, a former museum and a grand old hotel) as blank canvases for their imaginative, often over-the-top art installations. While not registered as an official venue this year, Site:Lab will be exhibiting smaller-scale exhibits and events at 415 Franklin, a 65,000-square-foot building that once housed a high school and will be the where Site:Lab stages its next big ArtPrize installation in 2018. Love ’em or hate ’em, the boundary-pushing artworks are sure to prompt discussion over dinner.

Located in the bustling Eastown neighborhood, That Early Bird is the kind of place that inspires otherwise sane people to stand in long lines for its housemade English muffins and legendary culinary concoctions like avocado smash, bacon cheddar scones and curried hash. Delectable gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options are also available.

Known for its elegant atmosphere, local farm-to-table cuisine and stupendous selection of wines, including 100 on tap, Reserve Wine & Food is a must-stop for curious oenophiles. You could easily fill up on small plates alone (the restaurant has an in-house butcher and makes its own pate), but you would be well advised to save room for the fantastic entrees, which include everything from burgers to steak to farmer’s hash. During ArtPrize, approximately 100 people per day drop in just to see artist Ran Ortner’s “Open Water no. 24,” a spectacular 6 feet tall by 19 feet wide painting, which was the event’s very first $250,000 grand prize winner, and now hangs over the very happening bar.

Experience Farm Hand, the best-selling farmhouse beer in Michigan, at Brewery Vivant, the first LEED-certified microbrewery in the world and a certified B Corporation to boot. Located in the chapel of a former funeral home, this microbrewery offers a rotating selection of French and Belgian beers, including 19 on tap, along with fare like duck-confit nachos, all served in a lively environment. Informative tours—complete with samples—are available every Saturday at 2pm and 3:30pm for $10 per person.  

TThe Butterfly Effect” by Bryce Pettit and Allison Leigh Smith won the 2016 Installation Public Vote.